In the run up to the 2018 NFL season, we’re previewing each division. Have a read of our other previews here. Next up: AFC North
The Steelers’ ended 2017 in familiar fashion. After taking the AFC North with a formidable offense, their defense unravelled at the hands of the Blake Bortles-led Jaguars. It’s difficult not to think that the Steelers window is closing. Big Ben almost annually threatens retirement. Le’Veon Bell has again foregone all offseason activities. Despite this, the AFC and particularly the AFC North appears to offer little resistance to the Steelers dominance.
In Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster the Steelers have one of the most dynamic receiving duos in the NFL. Le’Veon Bell hasn’t let contract negotiations affect his performance previously and is unlikely to do so with a big pay day on the line. Perhaps the most intriguing offseason move was parting ways with OC Todd Haley. Haley’s relationship with Roethlisberger was strained at best, could Big Ben thrive without his old coach? The rest of the division will hope not.
The biggest problem facing the Steelers in 2018 remains their defense. Since losing their linchpin Ryan Shazier the Steelers have looked short of leadership on D. TJ Watt should continue to improve as a pass rusher while the front three of Heyward, Hargrave and Tuitt look strong. First rounder Terrell Edmunds was perhaps the biggest surprise of the NFL Draft but has already shown glimpses of fitting the Steelers’ system. The secondary looks a severe weakness but not enough to derail Pittsburgh’s regular season, though the playoffs will be a tougher test.
The Draft captures a nation for a few months in the offseason, but the harsh reality is often quite different. Lamar Jackson will not supplant Joe Flacco as the Ravens QB, at least not in 2018. Jackson has a long way to go to become a franchise signal caller. The Ravens as a whole find themselves in transition, GM Ozzie Newsome is in his last season combining short term moves with long term term franchise pieces. Can there be one last hurrah for Flacco and co?
The Ravens blew up the receiving corps in an attempt to help Flacco. Wily veteran Michael Crabtree, deep threat John Brown and slot receiver Willie Snead are marked improvements from last year. Despite a decent offensive line, Flacco would benefit most from a strong running game. Alex Collins is talented but whether he can be the physical back successful AFC North teams tend to depend on is another question.
Flacco’s Last Hurrah? (Patrick McDermott/USA Today Sports)
The defense neatly juxtaposes young and old. Foundation pieces such as middle linebacker CJ Mosley and cornerback Marlon Humphrey have been part of Ozzie’s leaving gifts. However, there remains an over-reliance on players reaching the end of their careers. Eric Weddle and Terrell Suggs still lead this team and will hope they can get another shot at post-season football. The problem? More often than not teams who believe they have one last chance are usually a season removed from being at their best. It’s difficult to see the Ravens as an exception.
To Bengals fans it felt like Marvin Lewis was on a thin thread. A 7-9 record seemed overly generous for a team devoid of any offensive get-up-and-go. Lewis survived but it appears his near-firing was avoided only on the agreement that changes were made. Out went OC Ken Zampese, early in the season. O-line coach Paul Alexander followed at the end of the year. Teryl Austin replaced outgoing defensive coordinator Paul Guenther as the Bengals sought to start 2018 on a different footing. This included bold moves to procure a starting left tackle in Cordy Glenn and giving younger players like Joe Mixon and Jessie Bates the chance to start by shedding veterans ahead of them on the roster.
The offense probably needs a strong season from Mixon to get it going. The stumbling block looks set to be the offensive line which remains in flux. Rookie center Billy Price along with Glenn and guard Cling Boling have solidified three fifths of the line but the right hand side remains a shambles. They signed former Giants flop Bobby Hart to play tackle, for instance. If Dalton gets adequate protection then he has the weapons to make Cincy a top offense. AJ Green remains an upper echelon receiver while John Ross and Tyler Boyd finally look at home in an NFL offense. A healthy Tyler Eifert would gives the Bengals enviable talent at tight end.
On defense, the Bengals will hope their front can provide enough pressure to stifle opposing offenses. Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap just signed new deals but it is pass rushers like Carl Lawson and Jordan Willis that make this such a deep group. Being without Vontaze Burfict for four games will hurt an unathletic linebacker group but the secondary should make up for it. William Jackson could be a perennial all-pro while the Bengals felt strong enough in Bates’ ability to shed veteran safety George Iloka. If the Bengals defense is elite they could be the dark horse of the division.
Hard Knocks has a funny way of framing our view of teams. When you get an in-depth look at a working NFL team it’s difficult not to pull for them, especially when they have won one game in two years. Despite that, it is difficult to argue against the fact this roster is infinitely more talented than previous years. Non-playing staff have also been turned over. The Browns boast a new GM, OC and DC in John Dorsey, Todd Haley and Gregg Williams. All should help Hue Jackson develop this team properly.
Anyway, this is Tyrod Taylor’s offense. Baker Mayfield may be a future star Taylor offers the best option for steadying the ship. The Browns have rushed and ruined so many first-round draft picks in recent years, they mustn’t make the same mistake again. Taylor will benefit from an experienced offensive line and a talented supporting cast. Jarvis Landry has oodles of talent, whether he can be the no.1 of the group is yet to be seen. Youngsters Antonio Callaway and David Njoku have impressed in preseason and their contribution will be important.
On defense, the Browns have their superstar in place. Myles Garrett has the tools to be the number 1 pass rusher in the NFL and his play alone should elevate the defensive front. Emanuel Ogbah and Carl Nassib will need to take advantage of the heat Garrett will take from them. Jamie Collins now knows the system and must step up as a leader. The secondary will still be a concern. Rookie cornerbacks often face the steepest learning curve (2017 class notwithstanding) so expectations must be curbed for Denzel Ward. Jabrill Peppers has talent but at what position is still unknown, while Damarious Randall was so good Green Bay shellacked secondary was content to see him leave. There is no doubt the Browns will improve but by how much is tricky to gauge.